Kansas City Star, Wednesday, 03/23/05

Changes ahead for complaint office

By Benita Y. Williams
The Kansas City Star

The Jackson County Legislature has given itself oversight of a county complaints office that has been the subject of criticism.

A resolution approved by legislators on Monday recommends that the Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints file monthly case reports with the county Legislature and county executive. Other changes include asking those filing complaints to fill out satisfaction forms that will go to the Legislature.

"This is a breakthrough," said Sidney Willens, a lawyer asked to act as an unpaid consultant on the matter. "It gives me the opportunity to help resolve the ills of this office."

Willens, the first chairman of the complaint office commission, anticipates recommending more changes after his scheduled review next week of the office's 2003 and 2004 case files.

The office and its eight-member commission were established by the county's 1973 charter to investigate discrimination and reconcile problems between residents and the county.

Commission members are appointed by the county executive.

The reforms on Monday were the first since independent consultant Duncan Fowler recommended a major overhaul of the complaint office last year.

Fowler's report costs the county $16,000 and followed years of criticism about the handling of a 1998 complaint, which spurred a lawsuit alleging violations of the state open meetings law.

A judge found the commission had wrongfully closed two meetings, and he assessed fines against office director Deborah Tircuit and former commissioners Michael Hunter and Gregory Gerstner for purposefully violating the state law.

To reach Benita Y. Williams, Jackson County government reporter, call (816) 234-4789 or send e-mail to bwilliams@kcstar.com..
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